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The pantomime is over for Prigozhin The Wagner Group leader won't survive on theatrics

"Prigozhin is a busted flush." Prigozhin/Telegram

"Prigozhin is a busted flush." Prigozhin/Telegram


June 19, 2023   4 mins

Yevgeny Prigozhin, the vitriolic and confrontational leader of the Wagner “Private Military Company”, has come to play a leading role in the bitter war of words between the country’s nationalists and armed forces. For months, he has been lobbing increasingly fiery rhetorical grenades at defence chief Sergei Shoigu’s Army and Ministry of Defence, which he accuses of incompetence and corruption, and blames for Russia’s floundering war effort.

Western pundits were agog when Prigozhin appeared to go so far as to criticise Putin, promising to remove his forces from the line and threatening Shoigu with execution. He even appeared to label Putin “grandpa” — a nickname made popular by jailed opposition leader Alexey Navalny — in a caustic video. Many wonder whether Wagner’s leader might attempt to seize control of the military leadership or even launch a coup. But recent developments suggest that this pantomime is about to end. Prigozhin’s power is to be curtailed — and there’s little he can do about it.

Prigozhin, an ex-convict known as “Putin’s chef”, has long been a master self-publicist. His Wagner Group, whose state connections were until recently officially denied, is an exquisitely branded enterprise housed in a glass office tower in St. Petersburg. The group’s social media presence is no less brazen. The online world of the Wagner “musicians”, as the organisation’s soldiers are known, is made up of thousands of gloomy TikTok videos displaying balaclava-wearing, skull-emblazoned troops rattling off machine gun rounds and rockets. Wagner musicians and their online fans soundtrack videos of war crimes and violent fighting with uber-macho hip hop beats and ceaseless nationalist and racist commentary about the Ukrainian enemy. In this world, morality and ethics seem to have been cast aside in favour of macabre destruction for its own sake.

Prigozhin channels this violence in selfie videos released to Telegram channels with hundreds of thousands of followers, promising to wreak havoc against the state’s enemies and — if he doesn’t get the arms, troops, and control he wants — against the state itself. The threat of internecine violence is not rhetorical. Last week, Wagner forces in occupied Ukraine “arrested” a senior Russian Army officer who had purportedly ordered his forces to fire on Wagner positions. The officer’s interrogation was published on Prigozhin’s channel: he was brazenly baiting his nemesis. Wagner and the Army, it seemed, were at war.

The Russian state’s elite cliques and power blocs have long engaged in bitter power struggles to position themselves to reap financial rewards, curry favour with Vladimir Putin, and cement their own status. Typically, Putin has watched on from the sidelines while his underlings tear chunks out of one another. Eventually, the conflict ends in a moment of public political theatre as the losing “villain” is publicly shamed. Such has been Putin’s modus operandi since the arrest and televised trial of the oil baron Mikhail Khodorkovsky in 2003. Rarely does the show begin, however, before the outcome is determined.

Prigozhin, though, has pre-emptively brought the battle into the open. The nature of social media allows Prigozhin’s fans — and enemies — to participate in these conflicts in a way that would not have been possible two decades ago. Russia’s nationalists form a baying crowd that watches on and even — by liking, sharing, and commenting on materials — amplifies elite splits. On Grey Zone, a Russian Telegram channel associated with Wagner, any mention of Shoigu — Putin’s long-time ally — is received by users with raucous mockery: “What’s he smoking?”; “F*cking liar”; “What a clown!!” Meanwhile, the channel’s almost 500,000 followers pour adulation on the muzhiki — macho men — who have died fighting or committed acts of vandalism or criminality at the front. The overwhelmingly male and young audience of this sort of content thrives on violence and macho adulation.

Almost every man in the Wagner Group owes Prigozhin a personal debt. By offering prisoners a means to escape from jail, and the rural poor hefty salaries in return for service, he has cultivated a sense of obligation among his troops. And by releasing materials directly to the online public, he strives to build a broader base of public support, as well as to strengthen the loyalty of his acolytes, The strategy is not necessarily misguided: the Russian public delights in such pantomime political theatrics.

However, Prigozhin may be about to discover the limits of the support that can be built through memes and virality. Shoigu might be the online nemesis of Wagner followers, but Prigozhin himself barely features in their discussions. At best he will sometimes be referred to as muzhik, but he is often derided as vain, foolish, or arrogant. His followers prize manhood, masculinity, and violence more than any particular leaders: they are nihilists out for themselves, not the sort of citizens who will die for their leader’s cause.

This self-interested support has given Putin an easy means to drop the final curtain on Prigozhin’s theatrics. In a meeting last week, he confirmed that all frontline troops — including those attached to Prigozhin and Wagner — will be forced to sign a contract with the state by 1 July. “If there’s no contract with the state,” explained Putin, “there can be no social guarantees [for the troops].” In other words, the state is about to usurp Prigozhin’s sole hold over Wagner: the promise that he can provide money, support, and freedom to the men under his command.

Prigozhin has responded with total denial, declaring that “Wagner will not sign any contracts with Shoigu”. Fellow nationalist leaders who have been critical of the MoD have accused him of “mutiny” for this refusal, and other elite powerbrokers have sided against him. While his troops are tied up at the front in Ukraine, sustaining enormous casualties and consuming vast resources as they do Putin’s dirty work, Prigozhin has no recourse. There is no hope of a mass mutiny without broader public support or the promise that Prigozhin can give his men something the state cannot. Simply put, neither Prigozhin’s soldiers nor the wider public have any reason to go into battle for him. If a power grab was ever on the cards, the chance is gone: Prigozhin is a busted flush.

In some senses, Prigozhin is an embodiment of the Putin era’s postmodern culture, in which reality is created, distorted, and destroyed momentarily by an arbitrary state. He stands for no ideas, cannot build elite coalitions, and alienates the general public. Through money, force of will, and outlandish PR, he has turned himself into a heavyweight — but his importance will likely diminish now the state has started to turn the screws. Distracted by the next scene in Russia’s pantomime of the absurd, sympathetic nationalists will move onto the next man to promise them an outlet for their frustration and rage. For now, Putin, the conductor of a cacophonous orchestra that plays far louder than Wagner’s “musicians” ever can, remains above the fray. If there have been questions raised about the Russian president’s ability to control the narrative of his war in Ukraine, he is showing that he remains — for now — in full control.


Ian Garner is a historian and analyst of Russian culture and war propaganda. His latest book is Z Generation: Russia’s Fascist Youth (Hurst).

irgarner

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Billy Bob
BB
Billy Bob
10 months ago

Hopefully he “accidentally” falls out of a 5th story window as many other prominent Russians who upset Putin seem to do

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
10 months ago

Hopefully he “accidentally” falls out of a 5th story window as many other prominent Russians who upset Putin seem to do

Simon Neale
SN
Simon Neale
10 months ago

A 60-something ranting warlord is a pretty tough act to carry off. He seemed to be modelling himself on Bruce Willis, whose retirement should give Prigozhin pause for thought.

Simon Neale
Simon Neale
10 months ago

A 60-something ranting warlord is a pretty tough act to carry off. He seemed to be modelling himself on Bruce Willis, whose retirement should give Prigozhin pause for thought.

Reginald Duquesnoy
RD
Reginald Duquesnoy
10 months ago

Valiant effort to Garner some support for flopping book.

Paul Devlin
Paul Devlin
10 months ago

Too true. Terrible article

Paul Devlin
Paul Devlin
10 months ago

Too true. Terrible article

Reginald Duquesnoy
RD
Reginald Duquesnoy
10 months ago

Valiant effort to Garner some support for flopping book.

Paul Hemphill
PH
Paul Hemphill
10 months ago

Sometimes UnHerd commenters come up with some strange, rabbit hole stuff. They’re not alone. I have very knowledgeable and ostensibly wise friends who went down that hole during Covid are only just resurfacing. Many are still stuck in the time warp of the anti-Americanism they adopted in their ‘sixties and ‘seventies salad days. Some even suggested that Ukraine was bombing its own people to garner western support and sympathy. They’re convinced still that Russia is actually “winning” this wasteful, brutal war – whatever “winning” actually means. Subjugation? Denazification? Colonization? Russification? As Buffy Summers said, “those who fail history are doomed to repeat it in summer school”.

Andrew Boughton
AB
Andrew Boughton
9 months ago
Reply to  Paul Hemphill

“Many are still stuck in the time warp of the anti-Americanism they adopted in their ‘sixties and ‘seventies salad days.” Actually, Paul, I think it might all be very different than you imagine. The people you think of as senior Baby Boomers are mostly under 40. For me, as a junior BB, I was all pro-American when so many not bright senior Marxist BB’s were reflexively anti-American. Yet as it turns out, my views have not remained intact. Still love all my American friends and family. Just don’t have much respect for the new (since 1990) American international relations class, not for Trumpist or Marxist reasons, but because American FP has managed to achieve such negative outcomes, and because it is no respecter – a real understatement – of the individual it pretends to champion.

Andrew Boughton
Andrew Boughton
9 months ago
Reply to  Paul Hemphill

“Many are still stuck in the time warp of the anti-Americanism they adopted in their ‘sixties and ‘seventies salad days.” Actually, Paul, I think it might all be very different than you imagine. The people you think of as senior Baby Boomers are mostly under 40. For me, as a junior BB, I was all pro-American when so many not bright senior Marxist BB’s were reflexively anti-American. Yet as it turns out, my views have not remained intact. Still love all my American friends and family. Just don’t have much respect for the new (since 1990) American international relations class, not for Trumpist or Marxist reasons, but because American FP has managed to achieve such negative outcomes, and because it is no respecter – a real understatement – of the individual it pretends to champion.

Paul Hemphill
PH
Paul Hemphill
10 months ago

Sometimes UnHerd commenters come up with some strange, rabbit hole stuff. They’re not alone. I have very knowledgeable and ostensibly wise friends who went down that hole during Covid are only just resurfacing. Many are still stuck in the time warp of the anti-Americanism they adopted in their ‘sixties and ‘seventies salad days. Some even suggested that Ukraine was bombing its own people to garner western support and sympathy. They’re convinced still that Russia is actually “winning” this wasteful, brutal war – whatever “winning” actually means. Subjugation? Denazification? Colonization? Russification? As Buffy Summers said, “those who fail history are doomed to repeat it in summer school”.

martin logan
ML
martin logan
10 months ago

Looks like Prigozhin has a bit more gas in the tank.
This is beginning to look like 1917 all over again, complete with General Kornilov’s march on St Petersburg.
(It failed, but set the stage for the revolution)

martin logan
martin logan
10 months ago

Looks like Prigozhin has a bit more gas in the tank.
This is beginning to look like 1917 all over again, complete with General Kornilov’s march on St Petersburg.
(It failed, but set the stage for the revolution)

Andrew Boughton
AB
Andrew Boughton
9 months ago

“Many wonder whether Wagner’s leader might attempt to seize control of the military leadership or even launch a coup.” Well, that was rather prescient, wasn’t it?

Emmanuel MARTIN
Emmanuel MARTIN
10 months ago

Prigozhin is a part of Russian oligarchy. He brought Russia a moderately important (but not decisive) tactical victory, by using the clever tactic of recruiting convicts in order to have a fresh crop of motivated and expandable troops for high risk infantry combat.
Russian prisons are now empty (of acceptable recruits), and the trick was a one off. Prigozhin is back to being a high ranking Russia leader, but not in first circle anymore.

Emmanuel MARTIN
Emmanuel MARTIN
10 months ago

Prigozhin is a part of Russian oligarchy. He brought Russia a moderately important (but not decisive) tactical victory, by using the clever tactic of recruiting convicts in order to have a fresh crop of motivated and expandable troops for high risk infantry combat.
Russian prisons are now empty (of acceptable recruits), and the trick was a one off. Prigozhin is back to being a high ranking Russia leader, but not in first circle anymore.

Samir Iker
SI
Samir Iker
10 months ago

It’s interesting though, that so many Russian reporters and sources on Telegraph are happy to openly criticise Russian strategy.
Putin invited some of those bloggers to his office, apparently, for an open and frank discussion. None of them seem to have fallen out of a window so far.

Still, Russia is far more ideal in terms of press freedom, goes without saying. However, it is fairly bonkers, that the supposedly “free” western world is much more closed and aligned to the “official” view. Not just the media, which is now collectively a Pravda equivalent, but if you go to “Russia war” links on random blogs, websites etc, there is one and only one viewpoint.

Usually, one key theme is Russia evil and trying to invade Germany, but also Russia incompetent buffoons who have nothing left but shovels against a soon to be victorious Ukrainian army.

Last edited 10 months ago by Samir Iker
Dominic A
Dominic A
10 months ago
Reply to  Samir Iker

Ok Samir, a challenge: I’ll parade around Parliament Square, with a simple ‘Stop the War sign’ – you do the same in Red square, let’s see what happens.

Samir Iker
SI
Samir Iker
10 months ago
Reply to  Dominic A

Easy.
Those in power in Russia fear someone waving a sign could be a threat.
Those in power in the West have nothing to fear from you waving a sign.

Dominic A
DA
Dominic A
10 months ago
Reply to  Samir Iker

Easy. but you didn’t answer the question. What actually happens to you, and to me, in the hours, days, months after the sign holding?

Dominic A
Dominic A
10 months ago
Reply to  Samir Iker

Easy. but you didn’t answer the question. What actually happens to you, and to me, in the hours, days, months after the sign holding?

Samir Iker
SI
Samir Iker
10 months ago
Reply to  Dominic A

Easy.
Those in power in Russia fear someone waving a sign could be a threat.
Those in power in the West have nothing to fear from you waving a sign.

Dominic A
Dominic A
10 months ago
Reply to  Samir Iker

Ok Samir, a challenge: I’ll parade around Parliament Square, with a simple ‘Stop the War sign’ – you do the same in Red square, let’s see what happens.

Samir Iker
SI
Samir Iker
10 months ago

It’s interesting though, that so many Russian reporters and sources on Telegraph are happy to openly criticise Russian strategy.
Putin invited some of those bloggers to his office, apparently, for an open and frank discussion. None of them seem to have fallen out of a window so far.

Still, Russia is far more ideal in terms of press freedom, goes without saying. However, it is fairly bonkers, that the supposedly “free” western world is much more closed and aligned to the “official” view. Not just the media, which is now collectively a Pravda equivalent, but if you go to “Russia war” links on random blogs, websites etc, there is one and only one viewpoint.

Usually, one key theme is Russia evil and trying to invade Germany, but also Russia incompetent buffoons who have nothing left but shovels against a soon to be victorious Ukrainian army.

Last edited 10 months ago by Samir Iker
Emil Castelli
Emil Castelli
10 months ago

I did not bother to finish the article – because the writer misses the whole point of everything….

Wagner is not needed now. Sure it will be handy for weird stuff – but this is a very, very, different world from a year ago, Wagner, and so Prigozhin, are obsolete.

Biden and Boris created a Brand New Professional Land Army, likely the best in the world. One armed with the most and best, one with training, discipline, spirit, and backed by the world’s leading military industry; out producing all the rest of the world in war material ….

Biden and Boris created this new Russian, Professional, Army. They called it into existence. They funded it by massively driving up the profit of Russian Resources with the Sanctions. They gave it a Nationalist Pride by showing the total Paper Tigers Biden and Boris are, and the hypocrisy of this endeavor, as the Neo-Cons worked and spent since 2008 to create this proxy war – and then lose it when they finally get it.

Biden, Boris, Prigozhin – all spent old warhorses who’s tine for the glue factory is approaching ….. The winners and losers of this engineered disaster are not those expected.

Billy Bob
BB
Billy Bob
10 months ago
Reply to  Emil Castelli

More rambling nonsense from yourself that uses lots of buzzwords but fails to actually make a point.
I’d argue that as signatories to the Budapest Memorandum the US and UK are morally doing the right thing by arming Ukraine and giving it the means to defend its territory, seeing as they agreed to respect its sovereignty and borders (along with Russia who have ignored it) in return for giving up its nuclear arsenal. Why do you believe those two countries especially should simply throw Ukraine to the wolves and let Russia turn it into a colony?

Michael Cazaly
Michael Cazaly
10 months ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

Surely the point is that Russia could not allow a hostile US colony on its border, particularly one in which a democratically elected friendly President was replaced in a CIA coup.

Think Cuba 1962 for an apt comparison. Regrettably the West had Neocons in charge, not real diplomats who had experienced WW2 and understood the very real risks.

james goater
james goater
10 months ago
Reply to  Michael Cazaly

If you believe that Ukraine would allow itself to become a “US colony” you really have no understanding of Ukrainian history. The country wishes merely to be free of foreign, i.e., Russian, domination. There is no comparison with the 1962 situation in the Caribbean. The US never denied Cuba’s right to exist as an independent nation; it merely objected to it’s foreign policy alignment.

martin logan
martin logan
9 months ago
Reply to  Michael Cazaly

Er, Cuba is still Communist, I believe, and aligned with Putin.They got their oil from him until recently.
So you’re really saying that it was OK for Ukraine to join the EU–originally their only goal until 24 Feb 2022.
And, since nuclaear weapons aren’t positioned in most NATO countries, you’re also saying Putin’s rationale for the invasion was bogus.
Thanks for proving Zelensky’s and Biden’s points!
Own goals don’t happen just in football…

james goater
james goater
10 months ago
Reply to  Michael Cazaly

If you believe that Ukraine would allow itself to become a “US colony” you really have no understanding of Ukrainian history. The country wishes merely to be free of foreign, i.e., Russian, domination. There is no comparison with the 1962 situation in the Caribbean. The US never denied Cuba’s right to exist as an independent nation; it merely objected to it’s foreign policy alignment.

martin logan
martin logan
9 months ago
Reply to  Michael Cazaly

Er, Cuba is still Communist, I believe, and aligned with Putin.They got their oil from him until recently.
So you’re really saying that it was OK for Ukraine to join the EU–originally their only goal until 24 Feb 2022.
And, since nuclaear weapons aren’t positioned in most NATO countries, you’re also saying Putin’s rationale for the invasion was bogus.
Thanks for proving Zelensky’s and Biden’s points!
Own goals don’t happen just in football…

Michael Cazaly
Michael Cazaly
10 months ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

Surely the point is that Russia could not allow a hostile US colony on its border, particularly one in which a democratically elected friendly President was replaced in a CIA coup.

Think Cuba 1962 for an apt comparison. Regrettably the West had Neocons in charge, not real diplomats who had experienced WW2 and understood the very real risks.

Richard Craven
RC
Richard Craven
10 months ago
Reply to  Emil Castelli

really weird

Steve Farrell
BR
Steve Farrell
10 months ago
Reply to  Emil Castelli

Best in the world? That’s a quick turnaround.

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
10 months ago
Reply to  Emil Castelli

More rambling nonsense from yourself that uses lots of buzzwords but fails to actually make a point.
I’d argue that as signatories to the Budapest Memorandum the US and UK are morally doing the right thing by arming Ukraine and giving it the means to defend its territory, seeing as they agreed to respect its sovereignty and borders (along with Russia who have ignored it) in return for giving up its nuclear arsenal. Why do you believe those two countries especially should simply throw Ukraine to the wolves and let Russia turn it into a colony?

Richard Craven
Richard Craven
10 months ago
Reply to  Emil Castelli

really weird

Steve Farrell
BR
Steve Farrell
10 months ago
Reply to  Emil Castelli

Best in the world? That’s a quick turnaround.

Emil Castelli
Emil Castelli
10 months ago

I did not bother to finish the article – because the writer misses the whole point of everything….

Wagner is not needed now. Sure it will be handy for weird stuff – but this is a very, very, different world from a year ago, Wagner, and so Prigozhin, are obsolete.

Biden and Boris created a Brand New Professional Land Army, likely the best in the world. One armed with the most and best, one with training, discipline, spirit, and backed by the world’s leading military industry; out producing all the rest of the world in war material ….

Biden and Boris created this new Russian, Professional, Army. They called it into existence. They funded it by massively driving up the profit of Russian Resources with the Sanctions. They gave it a Nationalist Pride by showing the total Paper Tigers Biden and Boris are, and the hypocrisy of this endeavor, as the Neo-Cons worked and spent since 2008 to create this proxy war – and then lose it when they finally get it.

Biden, Boris, Prigozhin – all spent old warhorses who’s tine for the glue factory is approaching ….. The winners and losers of this engineered disaster are not those expected.